Travels in Chile — Part 1 of 4
David Walker, the director of the Museum, and I flew to Santiago, Chile a couple of weeks ago to work on an upcoming CA+E exhibition, The Fog Garden.
The structures of the ironically titled “garden,” are being developed by architect Rodrigio Perez de Arce and his students at the Catholic University of Santiago. They are based on field в studies in the Atacama Desert, where scientists have been conducting research on fog collection in the world’s driest desert since the 1950s. The structures are designed to wring moisture out of clouds as a source of potable water.
The research site is Alto Patache, a steep and dramatic ridge that rises 2600 feet above the narrow coastal flats below. The only source of moisture in the region is the fog that rolls in nightly from the Pacific Ocean, and centuries ago native people walked up from the shore to collect water dripping down the uppermost cliffs. Today, Rodrigo and his students are designing sculptural forms that will both irrigate small gardens at the site, and collect enough water for piping to other locations.
Working on The Fog Garden was just the beginning of a series of extraordinary encounters with art and architecture in what is one of the most prosperous nations in South America
Art as a Way of Knowing
This last week the Exploratorium in San Francisco hosted a two-day conference devoted to “Art as a Way of Knowing.” Funded by the National Science Foundation, the conference organizers convened “an international group of artists, scientists, museum curators, writers, educators, and other cross-pollinators to explore and discuss the role of aesthetic inquiry in public interdisciplinary learning environments.” Presentations careened widely and wildly from art critic Jeff Kelley discussing the influence of the early 20th-century philosopher John Dewey on the Happenings of Allan Kaprow to Geoff Manaugh and Matt Coolidge talking about the confluence of geography and architecture, to Margaret Wertheim describing the incredible growth of the Coral Reef Project by the Institute, for Figuring.
But the real joy of the conference came from a night at the Exploratorium itself. If you’ve been to the legendary “museum of science, art and perception,” you know that many of its exhibits specialize in making us aware not just of how the world works–it’s physics and chemistry, for example–but also how we see the world, which means how we are often fooled by our preconceptions. Rooms are not the size they appear to be, objects disappear in front of your eyes, things move that really don’t, and more. But the best trick
of all was to realize how contemporary art has come to pervade what used to be a much more science-dominated environment.
Upon entering the cavernous space, we were greeted by an ongoing solo piano performance of Erik Satie’s circa-1893 composition Vexations, which consists of a short phrase to be repeated 840 times–which usually takes about 18 hours. It was a calm introduction to what would prove to be a rich visual experience and audioscape. Nearby, for example, independent curator Chris Fitzpatrick, composer Thomas Dimuzio, and NOAA cetacean acoustics expert Dave Mellinger set up an alcove that invited listeners to recline on enormous pillows while listening to a humpback whale composition.
Jeff Kelley had installed a station from which visitors could check out a cot and bedding, then go find a perfect place and time for a bed, the recreation of a classic Kaprow performance work from 1986. The Exploratorium volunteers were instructed in the nature of the piece–the conflation of a private act in a public space–but nonetheless Kelley, while using one of the cots, was at one point told that he “had to move along,” the assumption being he was a homeless person. Kaprow would have loved it.
The stealer of the evening, however was a performance of Black Rain by Brighton-based artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, collectively known as Semiconductor, whose films often deploy digital noise and “computer anarchy” to explore the intersection of the material world with our senses. Black Rain, which uses images from the twin NASA satellites known as STEREO imaging coronal solar ejecta, has become an internet hit, and is powerful enough at that scale. But seeing it projected on a huge wall with a live performance of the dense score reminded everyone in the building that art is experience, and that remains the definitive way of knowing.
Dispatch from Rio #1
Today we caught the subway to the General Osorio metro station in Ipanema. This metro stop has a newly opened sixty-meter high elevator (equivalent to a 23-story building) that leads to the Cantagalo and Pavão/Pavãozinho favela communities (the elevator services a population of about 28,000 people – a city in itself). Use of the elevator is free. It is connected by a covered walkway to a smaller tower, twenty meters high, that leads directly into the Cantagalo community. These favelas are lodged in the hillsides of Copacabana and Ipanema in the center of Zona Sul (the South Zone) in Rio. The elevators to the second smaller tower are not yet operational. There are plans to relocate some of the favela residences here to make it more “friendly” and to add a second viewing platform for the general public. The residents of the slums in the South Zone have a higher human development index than the rest of residents in Rio, though these slums still suffer from issues of drug trafficking, water shortages, landslides, fire, and open sewer systems. Santa Cruz, the West Zone, has the worst human development index in Rio. This is where the recent escalation in violence, due to the “pacification” campaigns, originates from.
In April last year, over 250 lives were lost in landslides in various favela communities around Rio (what Mike Davis refers to as cities of slums). Rescue workers suffered from nausea as they searched for survivors in Niteroi’s Morro do Bumba favela community. The nausea was caused from the inhalation of methane gas (Morro do Bumba is built on a garbage heap that emits large amounts methane as it decomposes). A protest/installation, organized by the NGO Rio de Paz, was staged in response to the floods. About twenty children from the City of God favela, with gags in their mouths, protested the poor housing conditions in favelas by building a wooden shanty on Copacabana beach with material collected from several favelas that were affected in the landslides. The protesters asked for improvement of housing conditions to be prioritized in the planning for the upcoming 2016 Olympics. The action was attended by Brasilian celebrities, who later led the participants, with flowers and food, up to the Santa Teresa slum that was also severely affected by the rains. About 1.3 million people live in the approximately 750 favelas in Rio de Janeiro.